Thursday, October 15, 2015

Coming In From the Cold

It's going down to 45 degrees tonight in Santa Fe, 44 tomorrow, and by mid-week, 40. Brrr, and brrr again.

Most of us will pull a loved one closer for body warmth, snuggle under an electric blanket or throw another log in the kiva. But for the unhoused in Santa Fe, Saturday night, thankfully, is their last night of roughing it outside in the chill of the high desert night. On Sunday October 18th, the Interfaith Community Shelter will open its doors at 6pm (though guests line up beforehand) and commence its shelter season at the former Pete's Pets on 2801 Cerrillos Road.

Santa Fe has a shockingly high number of unhoused people for a small city (population under 70,000), around 1500 on any given night according to Joe Berenis, Executive Director of the shelter. “In 2014 we served 250 discrete women, many of them between the ages of 45 and 65, many with mental health issues. When the shelter season ends our guests are dispersed to the many informal encampments all around the city and in the arroyos. The women have one of two choices—go it alone, which is scary, or end up under the 'protection' of one of the guys, which can be an iffy proposition. How he will treat her will depend on how drunk or sober or drugged or not he is at any given time.”

To be clear: during the season there is no length of stay limitation, but Pete's Place is not a year-round shelter; it's open October to May to prevent death from hypothermia (tragically, there were dozens of instances in the years prior to the shelter's opening in 2008). “One of our guests, a 65-year-old extremely smart woman was all anxiety about having to leave the shelter last spring,” Berenis remembered. “She was rattled, understandably, at the thought of being out there on her own. Before she left she offered this insight: 'The most powerless men in America are homeless men, and the only people they have power over are homeless women.'”

Rather than enter into these precarious partnerships, or risk the hazards of living in forests and open desert spaces, Berenis explained that many of the women defy the Santa Fe law which prohibits camping within the city limits, and pitch their tents not far from Cerrillos Road where they can get help if they need it. I asked Captain Marvin Paulk, Operational Commander of the Patrol Division of the Santa Fe Police Department how that is handled. The answer seemed to be, delicately.

My officers are compassionate,” said Captain Paulk. “If there is no immediate threat to the public safety or to the safety of the women camping, we're not out there looking for defenseless homeless women to roust from their tents. Our department is 18 officers short at present, and believe me, we're busy answering service calls. Of course if there are children involved, then we take control right away. We call the Children Youth and Families Department and they find the children a safe shelter. It may take some time and the kids are often here with us for a while in the offices while those calls are being placed, but I've never seen CYFD not come through for the kids.”

The women's dorm (partial view taken a few weeks ago)
Captain Paulk estimates that around 75% of the unhoused people making their way in Santa Fe are from around the immediate area—Santa Fe itself, Pecos, Espanola—and his sense is many remain without homes for a very long time.

Last year at Pete's Place during the seven months the shelter was open 1,097 people were served for a total of 17,570 bed nights. 39,000 articles of clothing were distributed. Year round 54,000 hot meals were served, sometimes 2, 3 or 4 helpings per meal. “Homeless people often come very hungry and one serving isn't enough; at Pete's Place they can fill their bellies,” Berenis explained.

This is all accomplished by three full-time staff, and a small army of 2,400 volunteers drawn from 40 faith and community groups. The volunteer teams register the guests, photograph them as they come in, cook the hot meals in the commercial kitchen, serve them in the dining hall, and bed folks down. “We also employ our guests,” Joe explained. “We feel if we're going to ask other organizations and businesses to employ our people, then we need to hire them too. Several of our current employees in the kitchen and maintenance were former guests.”

The facility is housed in a city-owned building, so there's no proselytizing allowed in accordance with the principle of separation of church and state. 20% of the budget is provided by the city and the remainder is raised from individual donations, community groups and grants. Pete's boasts 4 showers which is one more than the Vatican dedicates to homeless Romans, Joe informed me. 135 of last year's guests were veterans of the U.S. Military, 25% were women. Guests are able to bring their pets who are housed in insulated outdoor kennels, and a warming center with heat lamps is being constructed so those waiting to come into the shelter before it opens aren't frozen in the process.

The kennel is the yellow shed; warming center under construction
As we toured the facility Joe opened a door to one room that's being fixed up as a “family suite.” “That's so if a mother comes in with her three kids they can be sheltered together apart from the women's dorm,” he explained. The room was freshly painted white and was spotlessly clean. There are storage lockers, as well as a laundromat facility where the blankets and sleeping bags are frequently laundered.

A panoply of services is available daily—housing, employment, addiction, legal—and now dental services are offered on site every Wednesday from 9am to 4pm. St. Elizabeth's is there on Fridays to help guests apply for state id's, the Food Depot comes monthly on the first Wednesday to enroll guests in SNAP (food stamps), haircuts are available every other Tuesday, and so on.

The art room
Pete's is a “come as you are” shelter. Inebriated guests are admitted later, between 9 to midnight. They're given a hot meal and a space to sleep on cushioned mats on the floor, “so they cannot injure themselves falling out of bunk beds,” Berenis explained. “We rely on the Santa Fe Police Department, and we especially prize our relationship with Marvin Paulk, who is fabulous.” Paulk explained that he intervenes if there's a felon, or a child molester, or someone known for causing trouble, on, or hanging around, the premises.

I'll check out the situation first,” Paulk told me, “and send officers quickly if need be. I also participate in their orientations for new employees and volunteers, explaining law enforcement's role in what is really a societal issue. But society keeps shrugging its shoulders at these problems...we can't arrest our way out of them. Nor can we give up. We use our critical thinking, and we relate to people as individuals with compassion and understanding.”

Law enforcement services can entail taking people to the sobering center, or the hospital, or Pete's Place, or if they're frequent violators, jail. “We don't have a single solution, this is a very sensitive matter,” Paulk explained. “People have rights, they have civil liberties, we have to adhere to the U.S. Constitution, to the New Mexico Constitution. We do what we can to assist people who have been failed by the system. Sometimes we provide food, I've seen officers pay out of pocket.” So has Joe Berenis. “One officer brings doughnuts when he comes by, or burritos. It's terrific.”

Captain Paulk tries to make it over to Pete's about once a month. Berenis said that when Paulk comes in the guests invariably will line up to interact with him. “Yes,” Paulk admitted, “we talk, there's a caring aspect to this. If I see they have injuries I inquire about them, but 99% of them won't tell me how they got hurt. They're in fear to file a report; they may have issues themselves, warrants against them. On the street among homeless people there's a caveman mentality—whoever's bigger, stronger, wins out; many of them are dealing with powerful habits. Part of what I'm doing there is looking out for the department's image, making sure there's no excessive use of force by any of our officers. Because if there is we take it very seriously.”

I asked Paulk if he thought the James Boyd scenario might have gone down differently in Santa Fe. He looked pained at the question. “Can't say, that would be Monday night quarterbacking. But the bottom line is if you master Time, you master all. If you can wait someone out, wait him out. That would be the preferred method.”

Albuquerque Police Department has paid out a $5,000,000 settlement to homeless “illegal” camper James Boyd's family in a wrongful death action, and two if its officers—retired Detective Keith Sandy and now-fired Officer Dominique Perez (both have been booked but are not being held)have been charged with murder in the second degree, which carries a recommended sentence of 15 years. They shot Boyd in the back just 15 minutes after arriving on the scene.

In the end we're public servants,” Captain Paulk said. “We want people to be safe, not to be victimized; we want to see them get the services that will help them get through the day, through the night, and hopefully off the street.”

To celebrate Opening Night at Pete's Place guests will be given a pair of new warm socks. I plan to stop by and see if I can learn if the 65-year-old woman who left so fearfully last May has made it through the five-month shelterless season, intact. I'll report back when I know.